• World

Birmingham Tired of Being Labeled a Hub of Extremism After Westminster Attack

6 minute read

Little more than a week after the attack on Westminster, Britain has largely dealt with the fallout in its characteristically stoical way. The dead have been paid their respects, silences have been kept, and the Brits have gone back to bickering about Brexit — albeit still under a heightened state of alert.

But in the city of Birmingham, about a hundred miles north of the capital, many are grappling with the return of old suspicions about radicals within their midst. The March 22 attacker, Khalid Masood, had lived in the city in the months before his deadly act. The police have made at least eight raids and nine arrests in Birmingham since then, further fuelling perceptions that the capital of Britain’s West Midlands is a ‘hotbed’ of Muslim extremism.

This view was already widely held, especially among the right wing. In 2015, Fox News commentator Steven Emerson described the city of 1.1 million as a “no-go area” for non-Muslims, and later apologized for the misperception. There are certainly connections with jihadism, however; Birmingham— where around one in five identify as Muslim — was home to Britain’s first al-Qaeda inspired terrorist, Moinul Abedin, who was convicted in 2002 for having nearly 100kg of bomb-making materials in his property, and there have been a series of arrests since then. Most recently, in 2016 locals Zakaria Boufassil and Mohammed Ali Ahmed were convicted for passing Mohamed Abrini, a suspect in the 2016 Brussels attack and 2015 Paris attack, money in a Birmingham park. A recent report by the right-leaning think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, found that 39 of the 269 people sent to prison for terrorist offences between 1998 and 2015 came from the former industrial city, making it the country’s second-biggest incubator of Muslim radicals after London.

Yet while some of the city’s 230,000 Muslims acknowledge that Birmingham is home to one of the highest number of convicted terrorists in the country, analysts TIME spoke to say this figure is being blown out of proportion. “You are looking at a huge city with a massive population” Rashad Ali, a senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), tells TIME. “If it were a ‘hotbed’ it would be a bigger problem, you would be seeing thousands of convictions, not just 39.”

Indeed, experts and community leaders warn that the perpetuation of this ‘extremist hotbed’ narrative of Birmingham risks exacerbating the real, but nonetheless relatively small, problem that the city does have. Birmingham local Nicola Benyahia experienced it firsthand in 2015 when her 19-year-old son, Rasheed, left home to join ISIS from its de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria. He was later killed in an airstrike near the Iraqi border-town of Sinjar; a devastating sequence of events that propelled Nicola to start Families for Life, a counselling service for individuals dealing with the effects of radicalization.

The bulk of her clients hail from outside the city, which makes her think that Birmingham Muslims are “burying their head in the sand” about the issue. But she fears the rhetoric she has witnessed days after the Westminster attack, such as the Daily Mail branding the city the ‘jihad capital of Britain,’ is divisive and could ultimately play to the hands of extremists. “You have to be careful because when you have people feeling victimized and fed up with the same narrative” she tells TIME, “recruiters will provide a solution, they thrive on any racism, bullying— all of that is a recipe for them.”

The government has tried to tackle radicalization with a raft of counter-extremism measures, known as Prevent, which makes it a statutory duty for public sector workers to report on people suspected to be at risk. Yet some of these programs have done more to sow discord among communities, argues Imran Awan, associate professor in criminology at Birmingham City University. When 200 surveillance cameras were installed in Birmingham to monitor Muslims suspected of terrorism in 2010 “it made Muslims feel like a suspect community,” Awan says, causing a breakdown in relations between authorities and Muslim leaders.

These measures are also likely to have been relatively ineffective in preventing the Westminster attack. Investigators are now trying to determine what or who radicalized Khalid Masood — be it online terrorist propaganda, a local recruiter or radical imam— and reports of his behavior prior to the attack suggest a disturbed man who was prone to extreme bouts of violence prior to his death. Ali, who is an expert on extremism at ISD, says Masood’s age makes him an outlier from the usual under-25 age group who make up the majority of those referred to the government’s counter-terrorism program. “Schools, colleges and universities have adopted the Prevent much quicker” Ali tells TIME. “There are cases that are older, it does happen, but it is anomalous, it is not a norm.”

Masood is hardly a typical case in other ways; he only moved to Birmingham in early 2016, living in two addresses, Winford Green and Hagley Road, far from some of the seven city wards known for their high concentration of Muslims. Before going on a rampage in London, killing 4 and injuring 50, Masood was born Adrian Russell Elms to a single teenage mother in Kent, a county to the southeast of London. He went on to lead an itinerant life, often changing addresses and having numerous encounters with the law. His first conviction came when he was 18 and the last in 2003, when he attacked a man with a knife in the coastal town of Eastbourne. He is thought to have converted to Islam around that time. Some analysts believe he was radicalized in prison, a theory which Scotland Yard doubts. But the true circumstances may never be known. Nearly two years after the death of Benyahia’s son, the police have yet to discover what medium or individual radicalized Rasheed. Today, vulnerable people can become lone wolves simply by following the wrong path online.

So Muslims in Birmingham took to the streets over the weekend to show that they are united against extremism. Outside the stuccoed exterior of Birmingham’s town hall, local humanitarian officer Naveed Ahmed tells TIME that he came out to make the point that his whole community is being singled out for the actions of one man. “It is upsetting that again and again we have to make the same statements,” he says. “[Muslims] are just like everybody else, we feel unsafe about terrorism just like everybody else… extremism is like a totally different religion.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com